Meet the Psalm-Hymn (Part 3)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been considering the issue of psalm paraphrases.  We’ve looked at the definition of “psalm-hymns” and their use in worship.  Last week, I pointed out how singing psalm-hymns can be advantageous.  Now, I’d like to propose a few guidelines for including psalm-hymns in hymnals and in worship.

First, let me say that having access to accurate, literal psalm settings—songs that are not psalm-hymns—is extremely important.  In psalm-singing, it is essential that congregations have the ability to sing God’s Word with the least possible amount of human alteration.  This may come in the form of chanting directly from the text of the Bible, using non-metered versions of the Psalms (which tend to be more accurate), or just singing settings that are faithful to the content and form of the Scripture.  Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of such resources for psalm-singing.  Chanting is an often-forgotten practice in today’s churches, and most literal psalm settings are either based on archaic Bible translations like the King James or newer versions with unbiblical modifications (such as gender neutralization, for instance).  What we really need are accurate settings of the psalms based on a solid modern translation like the ESV.  (If you know of any such resources, please share them!)

However, in the orthodox Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, we don’t limit ourselves to singing only the psalms; we sing hymns as well.  Because I believe there are solid biblical grounds for singing both psalms and hymns in worship, it is my conviction that nothing should hinder us from singing psalm paraphrases or “psalm-hymns.”  But in choosing repertoire for a new hymnal (or a congregation for that matter), here are some important points to keep in mind:

Psalm paraphrases should never replace or supersede literal psalm settings.  We already discussed how psalm-hymns can be useful in worship.  But I would contend that each biblical psalm should have at least one complete, accurate setting in any psalter.  An unfortunate shortcoming of the blue Psalter Hymnal, for instance, is with regard to Psalm 9.  The only setting of this psalm (number 14, “Whole-Hearted Thanksgiving”) is a weak paraphrase, with much of the biblical content truncated and replaced with an extra-biblical refrain.  There is nothing wrong with this selection as a psalm-hymn; it preserves the basic message of the text, and it’s certainly a rousing selection to sing at the opening of Sunday worship.  No, in this case, and in many others like it, it’s what’s missing that’s the problem.  We need solidly accurate settings in order to faithfully sing the psalms.

Psalm paraphrases should not tamper with the original theme of the psalm.  For instance, you may have sung a chorus based on Psalm 46:10—“Be still, and know that I am God.”  Yes, this is always a comforting reminder, but without reading the rest of the psalm, you wouldn’t realize that this statement is spoken in the context of global turmoil at a catastrophic level!  “Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.  Selah” (vv. 2, 3 ESV).  Only when we read the entire text can we appreciate the true comfort that comes from resting in God.  Many other instances like this exist.  No, a psalm-hymn doesn’t necessarily have to include an entire psalm text, but it should at least provide the general context surrounding its content.

Psalm-hymns are especially important when they incorporate the New Testament message into the Old Testament text.  Many of the psalm paraphrases in the blue Psalter Hymnal accomplish this beautifully.  Take, for example, numbers 83, 135, and 221 (from Psalms 45, 72, and 110, respectively).  In all three of these cases, the original significance of the psalm is preserved, but Christ is made the central focus.  This is an extremely helpful contribution to the practice of psalm-singing, as the candlelight of these Old Testament songs is flooded with the Light of the World—Christ himself.

I hope these few comments have helped to make the distinction and purpose of psalm-hymns a little clearer.  Perhaps it’s best to view psalm-hymns almost like we view hymns—as a supplement to psalm-singing, though never as a replacement.  It’s my belief that as a body of believers, we should use the best resources at our disposal.  So if we’re going to sing psalm paraphrases, as I believe we should, it is our duty to find the best possible selections, and sing them well and often.  May God grant the Psalter Hymnal Committee insight to select such psalm-hymns for our new hymnbook, and may they be used for generations to come in the heartfelt worship of our God.

To him be the glory,


Questions for discussion

  • Does your church tend to favor literal psalm settings or psalm paraphrases?
  • What are some of the weaknesses of psalm-hymns, especially as regards the Scriptural content?
  • What are some of the strengths of psalm-hymns, with regard to the versification, music, &c.?
  • Have you noticed songs that take a portion of a psalm or other Scripture passage dramatically out of context?
  • Should psalm paraphrases be found in the “psalm” section of the new Psalter Hymnal, or in the “hymn” section?

4 Responses to “Meet the Psalm-Hymn (Part 3)”

  1. 1 justsinner99 March 10, 2012 at 9:34 am

    Your 3rd point (“Psalm-hymns are especially important when they incorporate the New Testament message into the Old Testament text.”) is especially helpful to consider. Thanks!

  2. 3 stillbelievin March 10, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    I will happily give you (all) a resource Psalms from the ESV set to music! Almost all of Jamie Soles’ songs are almost verbatim from Scripture. Check it out (for free; donations accepted) here:

    • 4 Michael Kearney March 12, 2012 at 8:48 pm

      This composer does a good job of combining the timeless psalms with a modern sound–and the music seems like it could be good for a contemporary-styled church desiring to sing more of the psalms. In most URC churches, though, I think we need some more resources suitable for congregational singing. Unfortunately, literal texts set to hymn tunes are much harder to find.

      Thanks for the recommendation!


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